Creating Safe Spaces to Turn Challenges into Opportunities

chairs 58475 640 - Creating Safe Spaces to Turn Challenges into Opportunities

Many of today’s complexity-related challenges require leaders to create more space in the workplace for people to share their difficulties and concerns, and explore new ways of addressing them. Whenever we are facing the unknown, doing something we haven’t done before, and unsure how to approach a new challenge or what the outcome might be, we feel vulnerable. This sense of vulnerability often precedes our knowing what we can expect of ourselves, or what is expected of us in our work environments, and can cause undue stress. 

I was speaking recently to a healthcare leader and was reminded of the importance of creating space for people to share stories about the challenges they face. This leader related how she opened up a space for her staff to share their stories, and what emerged demonstrated a pent-up need that appears to be present in many work environments. She described these stories in terms of their powerful impact and the emotions they generated. She heard many words of appreciation for having created a safe space that enabled these stories of challenge to be told. The members of her staff walked away from the meeting feeling more hopeful, sharing a newfound sense that together they could address the challenges before them and create a better work environment. 

In our lives, and in our organizations, as we move rapidly toward greater complexity we need to find ways to be together differently, to support one another, to find comfort in knowing that we are not alone. As complexity increases, so do our experiences of overwhelm. I have certainly been experiencing that in my life and work. As I prepare to present at the upcoming STIA+ conference in Seattle, in mid-April (, I have been reflecting on what I and others can do to mitigate those feelings of overwhelm. I have come to believe that it is most important that we create more spaces for people to connect and come together in conversation that seeks to understand the complexity we face and find new ways to move forward. 

Changing our ways of dealing with complexity may involve small changes in how we live and work together. This week I realized that what I needed to do was bring my work colleagues into conversation, so that together we could think about the challenges and opportunities we have before us. Not surprisingly, by the end of those conversations, I felt much more capable of addressing those challenges and opportunities from my leadership role. 

Lately, I have been gathering a group of colleagues at my home to share conversation about our opportunities and challenges. The group is growing; when people hear about the space we are creating for connection and meaningful conversation, they want to join in. I have the sense that, as our world becomes more complex and as we become less sure of who we are and how we want to be in the world, people are feeling more isolated. Yet, it is so wonderful to see how the conversations and connections among people in this group are generating new relationships, ideas, partnerships. 

As we move forward, we cannot wait for the world to become less complex; rather, we need to find new ways of being and working together. Reflecting on my recent experiences and those related by my colleagues, I am convinced that we need to be more relational, recognizing that we can be more creative, adaptive, and resilient when we live and work together. In particular, we need to lessen our need to predict and control and learn to trust in our ability to discover and adapt. We also need to treat others and ourselves with more grace and care, recognizing that for the most part we are all doing the best we can in increasingly challenging situations. And, we need to know that if we reach out to connect, others are more than willing to accept the invitation. We need each other. 

Read other posts by Nancy Southern

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